Tag Archives: A to Z Challenge

Zany

Prompt: zany; blessed with suck

Dana woke to a room full of gray light. She wondered if it was dawn or dusk. She did not ask for a clock in her room, knowing she would only find herself staring at it. They had offered her any number of luxuries not available to the rest of the patient’s award, as penance, perhaps. Dana barely noticed that she had grown too old for the children’s ward; how could she blame the staff for forgetting as well? Sometimes, she wished she was back in her old room with toys and the too-small bed. The new one felt foreign, even more like a hospital.

They announced her room change with a note, passed along with her mail and lunch one day. They had a plan, the doctors and orderlies she never saw. They cleared a path for her from one room to the other. She moved her belongings herself. Then she closed herself up in a new jail cell, just like the old one. Along the path, other patients had rooms like hers, meant to keep them in at any cost. They watched her, alert to the tense air in the building, as she passed by. Even that, just a few seconds of eye contact and exposure, made their faces contort as their minds stuttered and ground to a halt. Even on the floor of a mental institution, Dana could make the delusional more insane.

Dana rolled out of bed and padded in slippered feet to the bathroom. They had to specially arrange a room for her that included one. Dana had not left her room, except to move, in six years. She had not spoken to anyone in that long, either. She got letters, from staff members who took pity on her or were paid well enough. She got books, borrowed through the doorway. They were the currency of her sanity. The mentally ill were the only ones who could bear to be exposed to her. She lived in solitude because she broke the minds of everyone around her, without knowing why or how.

There was a knock at the door. She would know what time it was by what food they passed through the little hatch in the door. There were days when Dana wanted to rush over and open her side before they could leave. She wanted to grab their hands and hold on. She did not know if that would hurt them or not. She just wanted to touch someone so badly. What she heard next, though, was not the little hatch opening, but the whole door.

Dana stood paralyzed as it opened. She thought she should run into the bathroom and hide there. This had never happened before. They had routines, circuitous and tedious, for when something needed to be fixed or replaced in her room. Nothing like this, though. She could not move.

The person came in and closed the door behind themselves. Dana thought it might be a woman, albeit one with cropped hair and a sharp, hard face and a simple suit. She stood regarding Dana calmly and that in itself was strange enough to hold Dana in place a while longer. “You’re not what I imagined,” she said, “from the picture in your file. What a difference six years make.”

Dana croaked when she tried to speak. That was just as well; she did not know what she would say. She became terribly aware that she had not spoken to another person in all that time. She did not talk to herself or swear aloud when she stubbed her toe. She lived, if not in silence, then wordlessly.

“It’s all right.” The woman came into the room and sat down at Dana’s desk. “It’ll come back to you in time.”

Dana coughed and tried again. “You should leave.” That was the last thing she wanted. She wanted to let the woman speak to her for hours or days. She wanted to touch her hands and her hair and her clothes. She couldn’t, though.

“Why? Because you’ll drive me crazy? You don’t have to worry about that. You can’t hurt me.” She held out her hand and Dana felt a surge of terror at the idea that the woman could read her mind. She flinched away. “That’s okay too.” The woman dropped her hand. “I can’t explain everything right now. We haven’t the time. But if you come with me, I can give you answers. About everything.”

Dana’s tongue could not move fast enough to keep up with her thoughts. Question she had in excess. She had time enough to herself to think of them. Why did she have this terrible influence over people? Who or what made her this way? How could she stop it? Who paid for her room and care, which she knew had to be ludicrously expensive? And now there were new questions. Who was this woman? How did she know about Dana? How was she able to remain in the room with her without succumbing to hallucinations and delusions? Where did she want Dana to go? Dana could not get out a sound.

“I know it’s difficult. It will get better. All I need to know right now is, will you come with me? Yes or no?”

Dana had thought she lost everything. Not just her family or her normal life, but the world, locked away behind a door she could never walk through without endangering everyone else. Now, her mind ached like a limb with pins and needles of returning circulation. There was a chance, however slim, that she would be part of the world again. It hurt to have something to lose, after so long with nothing. In a dry creak of a voice, she answered.

“Yes.”

This post is part of a series written for the A to Z Blog Challenge. See other entries in the challenge series here.

 

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Yawp

Prompt: yawp; compensated dating

I’m not stupid. I have been paying attention long enough to notice when things started to change. It started with Dad’s work hours. He used to stay late sometimes or leave earlier in the morning to make a meeting. Then he started leaving every morning at eight. He’s home every day by six. Every day. Sometimes, after she picks me up from school, Mom goes grocery shopping. She puts everything on credit cards these days. So I started snooping. No one thinks about how much a sixteen-year-old sees; no one thinks of hiding things where they won’t find them. They’re only making minimum payments on the cards. The checking account only shows withdrawals, pages and pages of them. Yet we’re eating the same foods, Mom just traded up for a better cell phone, and my closet is overflowing.

I’m not stupid. I’m sixteen and I have to save my family.

For once, rumors at school proved both true and useful. There’s a girl who always has the latest electronics and jewelry and music. Rumor has it she goes on dates with older men, like an escort, and the money pays for anything she wants. We’re not friends; we had never even spoken. But I got her to tell me how she does it.

This is my third date with Alex, who hates it when I call him Mr. Q, as it says on his profile. He says it sounds like an action movie villain. The dating service paired me with him for my first date. Every time I sign up for new date, he’s the one who gets me. The service does everything online and for a company that doesn’t officially exist, they act like professionals. Still, I’m scared. I wonder if he’s obsessed with me. This doesn’t give me the ego boost I expected. I wanted to call this date off, but I made almost a thousand dollars from the last one. I can’t turn that down.

We meet at Fuller Plaza. There is a steakhouse of the top of Brooke Hotel, with views of the whole city. Alex hasn’t said, but I assume that’s where we are going. The ground level of the plaza is all jewelry and furniture shops and boutiques clothing. I sit on a bench in the middle of the walkway, in plain sight of at least thirty people. My parents think I’m at the movies with friends. No one knows where I really am or why. I could disappear and no one would even know where to start looking. That scares me most of all, the idea that I could just get swallowed up by the earth and no one would know it. So I make sure everyone here can see me.

I wore a short, teal dress. It’s unconventional. I want to look at least legal, to not stand out so badly, but without looking like I’m trying too hard to be “grown-up.” I’m pretty good at this part of it. I think I’m supposed to act younger, more fawning, but that part I’m no good at. Alex seems to like me, of course, if three dates in a row are any indication. We’ve not had sex. I wonder if he will ask. I wonder what I will say.

Alex shows up in a suit that makes my teal dress feel frumpy. He’s beautiful and I haven’t figured out why he even needs to hire dates. He’s the sort who seems to have everything going for him. Sure, he can be a little odd–the occasional too-long pause in conversations and a biting wit that just verges on mean at times–but nothing his looks and money and charm can’t overcome. He offers me his arm. “You look lovely, Emma.”

I cling to him more closely than usual; I got cold sitting on the bench. “Are we going to the Brooke?” People look at us, but their eyes slide away. We don’t look like we’re having enough fun to be doing anything inappropriate. Alex is not old enough to be my father. We look nothing alike, anyway. He’s blonde to my brunette, willowy to my stalwart. Rich to my poor, I tell myself. Still, we look like maybe we’re perfectly normal.

“That’s right,” he answers even as we walk through the sliding doors. The Brooke is beautiful enough to make me just a little giddy. Everything shines. The bellhops wear little caps. It’s like we walked into the twenties, trapped in one luxurious night forever. “There’s a party and the hostess would never let me hear the end of it if I came alone.”

In the elevator, though, he does not press the button for the top floor. He presses the fourteenth. “Where are we going?” My stomach and my heart are fighting to see which can reach my throat first.

“A party.” Alex glances down at me then he turns to lean against the wall, facing me. “I think you’re ready for this.”

“If you do anything to me, I’ll scream.” Five. Six. Where can I run to when we hit fourteen?

“Yes, I imagine you would yell your head off. And fight. You would go for my eyes, I think. You never waste time. I like that about you.” Eight. Nine.

“Why are you doing this?” Now, in this moment, at last, I feel stupid. Suicidally stupid.

Alex scowls. “Please don’t start the amateur theatrics now. I chose you because you’ve proven yourself to be calm and mature and not inclined to jump to conclusions. We are going to a party. No harm will come to you, at least not any that I intend to permit.”

And as the floors tick away, I think that maybe I believe him. “What kind of party?” My hands are sweating and I hold them away from my body so I don’t mess up my dress.

Twelve. Fourteen. There is no thirteenth floor, according to the elevator controls. When we step out, though, the plaque next to the doors says thirteen. Alex smoothes his hair and it is the first time he’s looked nervous. “An unusual one.” He turns to me. His eyes are black. All black. I clench my jaw and stay quiet. He smiles, confident and pleased and just starting to be familiar. “Good. I knew you were the right choice. Just stay close to me and we’ll get out of here alive.” I wondered how literally I should take that.

This post is part of a series written for the A to Z Blog Challenge. See other entries in the challenge series here.

 

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Xenelasia

Prompt: xenelasia; scaramanga special

There is a commotion at the head of the line. Talesca still has some thirty people ahead of her in line and she cannot see what has happened. The crowd buzzes in a dozen languages. She leans out of line, trying to get a glimpse of the checkpoint. Something stirs up the dust of the dirt road they are on, the only one foreigners are allowed to use to enter the city. She catches sight of a city guard, no doubt baked half to death inside his armor by the heat.

Someone nearby says, “They found a weapon.”

Someone else immediately counters, “I heard it was poison.” Tempers flare. They are all hot and tired and sick of waiting as the city guards decide who is good enough to celebrate the holy day inside the city. People have walked in a steady stream back the way they came, turned away at the checkpoint. There are so many, Talesca wonders if they are letting anyone in at all or if this is just a vicious prank.

Voices shout, there is the twang of a bow, and a body drops just outside the gates. The crowd falls silent in an instant. Talesca watches the soldier hoist up the body. Another helps weave the dead man’s arms through the gate. They leave him there, arrow sticking out of his back, as a warning to everyone watching. Whatever their foreign goods might be worth in the marketplace, their lives hold no value to the citizens of the city.

Talesca stands in line and shuffles forward with the rest of the unwelcome visitors. She resists the urge to touch her hair combs or the beaded ropes tying her robe shut. She does not spin her parasol and holds it at an angle so that only she benefits from its shade. She would gladly share with her fellow pilgrims, but the guards are known for punishing such displays of kindness and solidarity. She cannot afford to have them take her parasol away or do anything else to punish, or worse, bar her. She minds her own business and makes it to the front of the line.

When it is her turn, she collapses the parasol before they punch holes in it out of spite. The guard who pats her down does not even try to hide or excuse how his hands linger on her breasts and buttocks or slip between her legs in the search for hidden weapons or contraband. Talesca keeps her eyes fixed straight ahead. She dares not even let herself think the curses that want to fly from her lips, lest they show on her face. She gives them no reason to trouble her. Then she is through the gate and it feels like time starts moving again.

Even inside, there are guards everywhere. If they are not watching her, the citizens are as she reaches farther into the city. They stare at her with mingled curiosity and disgust. She is as foreign to them as the bottom of the sea. They are repulsed and drawn in by turns. She uses this to her advantage, playing up her foreignness: the tilt of her parasol; the swing of her hips; the nakedness of her gaze. The wave of interest crests and crashes down to disgust. In the moment their eyes turn away, Talesca ducks between buildings and out of sight.

She quickly breaks down her parasol into its component parts. She pulls the handle away from the rest, leaving her with a hollow tube and a flopping circle of paper and wood. She pulls a comb from her hair. Jewels and drops of silver hang from it, catching the light and interest normally. She pops off the silver drops, which are really needles, the feathers that had hung from them turning them into darts. Finally she pulls a bead from the rope at her waist. A tiny reservoir of greenish liquid sloshes inside. She dips the needles, careful not to so much as scratch herself. Preparations complete, she slips the loaded dart gun up her sleeve and goes in search of her royal target.

This post is part of a series written for the A to Z Blog Challenge. See other entries in the challenge series here.

 

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Wellspring

Prompt: wellspring; house inspection

(Yes, this one is late too and no, I didn’t bother to say anything about it, unlike last time. This is because last night, when it should’ve gone up, the only thing I would’ve been capable of saying was “star pox” and a string of less inventive expletives.)

Tara looked at the clock on the VCR and gave a piteous groan. “I am so f–” She swallowed the rest of the word. Parents don’t swear, she told herself. That was a rule, right? She loaded the rest of the flowers, wilting lilies in plastic containers, into a trash sack. She normally would not throw away anything that could still be used in even the most trivial way. Five days after the funeral, though, Tara got vindictive pleasure from tossing the things. They had done nothing but stink up the place and leave yellow pollen over everything in a fifty-foot radius. She cinched up the stack, headed for the garbage bins out front, and told herself again that parents did not swear. And against all odds, and expectations, she just became a parent.

There was something morbid and horrible about living in her best friend’s house, cleaning things that should have been Abigail’s, and eating food left in the fridge and pantry since before Abby died. None of that could trump the strangeness of taking care of Abby’s kids. If a half-used bottle of mustard could make Tara a teary-eyed, putting Amber and Ben to bed at night threatened to send Tara running from the house.

Sometimes, Tara thought the kids were handling their mother’s sudden death better than Tara was, which just added shame to the brain-breaking mix of emotions she felt. Two weeks ago, she had barely known Amber and Ben existed, she and Abby exchanged infrequent e-mails, and Tara lived out of a motor home on a meandering path across the country for her consulting work. Now she served as guardian to both kids and the house and had to justify both facts to everyone she met. She couldn’t even justify it to herself.

Tara dashed back inside. There was less than an hour before the social worker was supposed to arrive. She still had not touched the kitchen. As she swung through the house, bumping furniture in her haste, she saw Amber in her mother’s room, at the computer. She could keep herself entertained quietly and indefinitely, one of those ten-going-on-forty kids.

Ben, on the other hand… He had a sheet tied around his shoulders and zoomed around the room like a superhero. Abby had told Tara before how active he was, starting with late-night kicking sessions before birth and becoming ever more pronounced for the next seven years. Tara could see, though, how uncertain he felt after losing Abby. He could not sit down to dinner without watching his sister for guidelines. Now he was a satellite in orbit around her, never stopping and never leaving.

“Is your homework done?”

“Yes.” “Yeah!” “No.” “Tattletale!”

Tara squeezed her eyes shut, trying for one second just to wish herself away. “Okay, well, who wants help me clean up?” Amber hopped out of the office chair to follow Tara. Ben swooped around her with his cape–it was possible he transformed from superhero to pterodactyl at will.

For someone who willed guardianship of her children to a grade school friend with the least kid-friendly lifestyle ever, Abby had no shortage of mourners. Orphans of a young, single mother garnered a hell of a lot of sympathy. Add in a (lovably?) incompetent caretaker, and the kitchen soon overflowed with covered dishes of kid-approved food. If Tara never ate another bite of mac and cheese or another grocery deli chicken finger, she would be the happiest person alive. That left a pile of clean, once used aluminum pans that Tara could not bring herself not to use at least once more.

Tara eyed them, along with the kids. Amber looked between them and Tara. She seemed to take pity, as she often had in their short time together. “Mom hides stuff in the attic when we have guests.” Tara bit back tears at Amber’s use of the present tense for Abby. She gave each one a couple of tins and carried the rest herself.

The whole house felt like Abby–not just the colors she liked, but the liveliness she imparted to a room. The attic, Tara was surprised to discover, was no exception. Clear plastic totes contained baby clothes and art projects and broken dishes labeled “future mosaic.” Just enough dust covered things to give the proper attic impression, but not enough to drive a person out. In one corner, a sheet had been tacked up to cordon off an area. A pulled-back edge revealed pillows and blankets. “Do you guys play up here?”

Amber got quiet, for once not volunteering the rules of operation in the house. Ben dropped his tins and charged over to collapse on the pillows. The kids weren’t tall enough to pull down the stairs to the attic; Abby must have brought them up herself. Tara felt like a voyeur. She turned to find something else to think about, like where to put the tins for the time being. Instead, she spotted a tote marked “Abby, ’77 to ’87.”

“What’s that?” Amber asked as Tara lifted the lid off the tote.

“This is from when your mom and I were growing up.” She lifted out stacks of paper doll clothing and impossibly snarled friendship bracelets. “Look at all this stuff.” Tara swallowed against the lump in her throat. Some of the things in there… “I can’t believe she kept all this.”

At the bottom, there was a hand-bound book of miscellaneous pages, some still ragged from being torn from notebooks. It creaked as she opened the cover. The first page had to be unfolded to see the whole thing. Ancient adhesive tape flaked, yellow and brittle, from the seams.

Amber crouched next to Tara. “Is that a map? Where is it supposed to be?”

Tara ran a fingertip across blotchy ink. She traced little mountains and thread-fine rivers. City towers spiked like forests of needles. The edges of the continents were festooned with scattered islands. “It’s a place that never existed.”

“You mean you guys made it up?”

Tara cleared her throat and folded up the map. “Yeah. We just made it up. We should hurry up. They’ll be here any minute.”

“Wait.” Amber peered through the clear plastic tote toward the wall. “There’s something back there.” She pulled the now-empty tote out of the way. A flat wooden box had been hidden behind the tote. It had rivets and straps of leather across the top, like an old steamer trunk, but it was no more than four inches high. Amber started popping open the big latches on it before Tara could say anything. The lid sprang open on its own when the last latch released.

Amber scrambled back. “What is that?” Light, golden and soft and moving, poured out like water from a spring. “Do you know what it is?” She had her little hands tight around Tara’s arm.

“Yeah, I do,” Tara said faintly. Then the doorbell rang and she added, helplessly, “Shit.”

This post is part of a series written for the A to Z Blog Challenge. See other entries in the challenge series here.

 

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Vulgar

Prompt: vulgar; a million is a statistic

In the cramped and yellowed kitchen, Shawna’s father passed her one last plate gripping soap suds. “Gary seems nice.”

Shawna swabbed the dish with a cloth. “He is. He’s also just a coworker, so I don’t want to hear that tone in your voice.”

He held up his soapy hands in surrender. “Whatever you say, sweetheart.” He waited a beat then added, “I never brought any coworkers home to meet my parents, mind you.”

Shawna rolled her eyes as she set the plate back in the cupboard. “We’re working on a special report together.”

“I remember.” He put a hand on her shoulder, stopping her before she could leave the room. “Just tell me it’s nothing dangerous. I don’t like the idea of you poking around the neighborhood. I thought being a reporter would get you away from here.”

“Daddy, I thought you were happy to have me visit.”

“Shawna.”

“I know, I know. I promise I know what I’m doing. You don’t need to worry.”

“Mm-hm.” He did not sound convinced. “You’re going for a late walk when we’re in the middle of a murder spree. What could I worry about?”

Shawna hugged him. “Exactly. And it’s time we got going.”

In the living room, Gary sat in front of the TV with the Dodgers game on. A skinny, geeky white boy, Gary looked as out of place as a person could in Shawna’s old neighborhood. He was also the only person willing to even listen to her idea about the rash of murders and disappearances plaguing the community that would always be her home. When she walked in and he looked up at her with that eager expression, Shawna had to wonder if her father was onto something about the two of them. “You ready or do I have to wait for the final score?” Shawna asked.

Gary hopped up from the couch. “Sure thing. Mr. Mitchell, it was nice to meet you. Thanks for dinner.” He shook hands with her father. Then he pulled on his jacket and stood by the door, bouncing on the balls of his feet like a puppy.

“Love you, Daddy. We’ll let you know when we get back.” The door closed behind them and they were left with only the dim porch light as a barrier against the night. “Let’s get the camera,” Shawna said as a shiver twitched through her shoulders.

Gary really was the only one willing to listen to Shawna when she said something weird, something sinister was going on in her community. No one wanted to believe it was anything more than a little more gang violence. They were willing to just write off the whole thing is a hopeless case. Shawna believed there was a story, a crisis, but without an official assignment, she had no choice but to pursue her own leads on her own time. So there she was, walking the streets and, for once, hoping for trouble, while Gary followed with a handheld camera in his pocket.

“It’s kind of exciting,” Gary said as they walked by the light of streetlamps. Some of them had been shot out, leaving long stretches of darkness. This was a neighborhood with bars on the windows, where the lock on the door couldn’t stop the stray bullets that punched through walls like wet paper. “Kicking it old-school style.”

Shawna gave him a disbelieving look. “Are you for real?”

“Too much? Is my lingo out of date?” He grinned at her.

“Your brain is out of date, nerd.” They stopped at a corner. A memorial sprouted up there with flowers and candles and a posterboard sign with glitter letters spelling out the name of another dead kid. The photograph attached had the blue-gray background of a school portrait. A teenage girl with curly hair and braces beamed up at them, so alive it hurt to look at her. “I hate this. Five kids die and the community is outraged, there’s news coverage and a police statement. Twenty kids die and there are community watch meetings, but no one else is talking. We hit one hundred unexplained murders and no one says a word anymore. This is the new normal. I can’t get the station’s producers to touch it with a ten-foot pole.”

“We’ll get evidence. We’ll see something. They’ll start paying attention. Then, when they uncover corruption and apathy and evil crap, we’ll throw a big ‘told you so’ party.”

It got late. Shawna worried that the only thing they would see would be a search party sent out by her father when they did not come home soon enough. Then they rounded the corner of the half-derelict community center, its basketball court dusted with broken glass, and heard a stifled scream. Gary practically ripped the pocket off his jacket in his hurry to start the camera recording. They followed the sounds of a struggle to a blocked-off alleyway between houses. At one end, a plywood barricade cut it off from the other end of the street, making it useless as a shortcut.

Shawna did not know what the camera would get in the dark, but she could see clearly enough. A couple of people had a third trapped between them. For second, Shawna thought it was some kind of tryst because it looked like one person had bent to kiss the other. There was a squeal, muffled by a hand clamped over the middle person’s mouth. Then Shawna realized they were–biting someone? She hoped to god Gary was getting this. Forget gangs; this looked more like a cult.

Someone’s hand suddenly clamped on Shawna’s neck from behind and lifted her off her feet. Shawna flailed her legs and felt her heel connect with something unyielding as steel. “What might this lovely surprise be?”

Shawna clawed at the hand holding her. It was like trying to pry off a vise with a plastic knife. Where was Gary? Did they have him too? “You won’t get away with this.”

“That’s the wonderful boon to preying on the vulgar masses.” The voice ghosted across her cheek and brought a rancid, metallic smell with it. “What they lack in taste,” the voice said with a bubbling chuckle like a drowning victim’s last sigh, “they make up for in anonymity. No one ever misses them.”

This post is part of a series written for the A to Z Blog Challenge. See other entries in the challenge series here.

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